Middle French pilote, from Italian pilota, alteration of pedota, from Middle Greek pēdōtēs, from Greek pēda steering oars, plural of pēdon oar; probably akin to Greek pod-, pous foot
- 1a : one employed to steer a ship : helmsman
- b : a person who is qualified and usually licensed to conduct a ship into and out of a port or in specified waters
- c : a person who flies or is qualified to fly an aircraft or spacecraft
- 2: guide, leader
- 3: cowcatcher
- 4: a piece that guides a tool or machine part
- 5: a television show produced and filmed or taped as a sample of a proposed series
- 6: pilot light
The master has full responsibility for safe navigation of his vessel, even if a pilot is on board. If he has clear grounds that the pilot may jeopardise the safety of navigation, he can relieve him from his duties and ask for another pilot or, if not compulsory to have a pilot on board, navigate the vessel without one. Only in transit of the Panama Canal does the pilot have the full responsibility for the navigation of the vessel.
In English Law, Section 742 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 defines a pilot as "any person not belonging to a ship who has the conduct thereof". In other words, someone other than a member of the crew who has control over the speed, direction, and movement of the ship. The current United Kingdom legislation governing pilotage is the Pilotage Act 1987.
Pilotage is one of the oldest professions, as old as sea travel itself, and it is one of the most important in maritime safety. The oldest recorded history dates back to about the 7th century BC. The economic and environmental risk from today's large cargo ships makes the role of the pilot essential.
As the most challenging part of any ship's voyage is the passage through the narrow waterways that lead to port and the final docking of the ship. The pilot brings to the ship expertise in handling large vessels in confined waterways and expert local knowledge of the port. In addition to bringing local maritime expertise on board, unlike the vessel's captain, the pilot is insulated from the economic pressures (e.g., getting the ship from point A to point B on time, regardless of weather conditions, traffic, or other navigation issues) that can compromise safety. Instead of being part of the ship's crew, pilots are employed locally and therefore act on behalf of the public rather than of the shipowners.